Race & Gender Studies: Expertise Counts

January 26, 2013 / one comment

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A version of this post previously appeared on DailyKos.

This post was provoked by yet another stumbling attempt to re-invent the wheel by yet another person who feels perfectly entitled to start a conversation on race without doing any homework.

At the moment, I’m not interested in debating what “racism” or “sexism” is or isn’t.  My topic is expertise: it exists in the fields of race and gender studies & activism, just like it exists in the fields of physics, sociology, politics, philosophy, biology and anthropology.  The people who study gender and race, and who spend their careers in the field and in research are actually doing something. So are the activists who are out there, day after day, dealing with racism and sexism in our communities. Their long experience makes them experts. They’re  more prepared and more thoughtful about answering race- and gender-related questions than people who have spent their careers doing something else. If you’re a progressive and you don’t get that, you’re not nearly as much of a progressive as you think.

I’m not a physicist but…. I’m going to venture out here and explain the theory of relativity without reading any books about it or referring to the work of a single physicist. By the way, I suck at math.

You wouldn’t get much respect for that, and you wouldn’t expect it, would you?

It’s a mark of pervasive, systemic racism that, time and again, folks want to ignore the fact that there actually is expertise on the topic of race, racism, racial prejudice and discrimination. It’s a mark of pervasive racism that folks believe that the race scholar equivalent of the physicist has the time and energy to enter into endless conversations with people who don’t bother to get the equivalent of an 8th grade education on race before they start batting around definitions.  (Same goes for pervasive sexism, but for brevity I’m going to stick to the example of race thoughout the diary.) Then again, maybe it’s just that the opinions of the experts aren’t congenial to the beliefs of the proudly ignorant.

Would you get pissed off at the biologist who took issue at the misuse of the term Darwinism in the social sphere? Or who argued that “Social Darwinism” isn’t really “Darwinism” at all?  Again, I don’t think so.  A little courtesy across disciplines, please.

Stop pretending that it’s utterly outrageous that “racism” (a term invented by social scientists, by the way) has a technical meaning that specialists attempt to prevent from becoming degraded by its consistent misuse by those who don’t like to admit the reality of the concepts that the term “racism” was invented to describe.

When the U.S. falls far behind in science education, and people lose sight of the meaning of the word “evolution,” my guess is that most of you think that the best thing to do about it is improve American education, not change the definition of “evolution” so that it stops describing what it was invented to describe.  And yet, many of the same people who believe it’s a tragedy that the average American is so ignorant about science are totally cool with the fact that Americans are dangerously and aggressively ignorant about race.  Understanding complex topics (“evolution,” “racism”) requires education.  We’re progressives; we’re supposed to love education.

Race is a hard topic.  Chances are that you aren’t going to be able to contribute much to a discussion that’s been ongoing since the 1930s unless you already know where in that discussion your opinions and beliefs are situated. When you barge in with naive opinions (which, of course you are entitled to have) as if they are equivalent to educated opinions (which, of course, they are not), then you’re situating yourself in a position that’s not very pretty. That is entitlement.  That is racism. If you don’t want to be called a racist or a sexist, don’t act like one.

When you’re ready to come to a discussion actually prepared for it with more than something beyond, “I think…. ” you might find that other people who know a lot more than you do will be willing to actually engage with you to continue your education. You might even find that we’re willing to listen respectfully to your dissenting opinions, once you’ve done the research to show that your dissent is based on evidence and argument.

Until then, pardon me for assuming that deliberate public profession of ignorance on a hot-button topic is a trollish ploy meant to distract the energies of antiracists and feminists rather than to further knowledge on the topic.

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